Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Avalanche

It's about seven o'clock in the evening, and we're just finishing a meal in a local restaurant - not a posh restaurant, just a generic chain food place attached to a generic chain motel. To be honest, that works in our favour. Nothing is very clean, nothing is very fancy, no one is very quiet. We jumble together at some tables in a far corner, all ten of us; our little family of five, my dad, my cousin and his family. And George has been very good all day, despite the sudden influx of new people in the house and then the strangeness of going out for a meal.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
But there's a limit. There's always a limit. It starts with the boys getting little plastic projector toys from a vending machine. George decides he doesn't like his and wants a different one. He's lying on the floor in front of the machine, pushing his fingers into the holes, occasionally trying to rock it. This is probably where we should have left, but of course you don't want to leave before the meltdown. I haven't seen my cousin and family in four years. We only have this one day.

Meltdowns can be like an avalanche. You see a little snow tumbling, but you don't want to leave the slopes. You want to stay just a bit longer. You convince yourself it's safe. And then suddenly you have twenty tons of snow hurtling down the mountain. It hits. It envelopes you. There's nothing you can do but try to manage the situation.

By this point George was trying to cling onto the vending machine and screaming that he didn't want to leave. I tried to hoist him up. He's eight. He's heavy. He's preternaturally strong. I try to lift him and he either goes limp or starts kicking. People are starting to look at the screaming child. I want to stay I want to stay I want to stay I want to stay. I stay very calm. I tell him very firmly that he's not having another toy. I tell him we are leaving. I tell him he can walk or be carried. In the end he's half carried, half dragged. He tries to bite me. He tries to kick me. He tries to scratch me. I keep saying firmly, no. I have to get him through fifty metres of restaurant lined with tables, and the more people look, the more people speak, the worse it is.

I have to stop every ten metres to rest, because he is heavy, and he's fighting all the way. What are people thinking? Are they seeing a spoilt brat? Are they seeing bad parenting? I wish I had some kind of badge on my back, a universal autism sign. All I can do is be very calm and firm and try to get him out of there. I hope that in doing that not only will it help George but it will also indicate to onlookers that we're not dealing with a temperamental little brat. But I know that his screams are resonating through the entire restaurant. I know that while everyone else is just trying to eat or work, I am bringing a tornado through the place.

Finally I get him outside. I need to get him to the car, but he only has one shoe by this point, no coat, and it's raining. I'm exhausted and overwhelmed and my back hurts from dragging him through the restaurant. My husband brings the car, but of course it takes time. I briefly think how useful it would be to have a blue badge in moments like this. All the while I have a screaming, panicking, furious eight year old in my arms, and all I want to do is protect him from the world, from himself, from the stares of other people. It takes multiple goes to get him into the car, then to get his seatbelt on. I have to sit next to him to stop him taking it off. I have to stop him kicking the back of the driver's seat.

And then the sun. It's not like a sudden sunny day, but more like when the clouds start to clear after a huge downpour. It takes fifteen minutes of driving, but he starts to calm down, to stop screaming and crying. I mention how I feel like I've left something behind because I let my husband get my coat and bag. He says he left something behind that starts with 'h' and ends with 'ss.' 'Happiness.' To be honest, I'm proud of him for calming down enough to start to articulate how he feels. And I'm not stupid enough to think it's the plastic toy that did it. The avalanche had been building from the moment strangers stepped into the house, gathering momentum as we went out to a noisy, overstimulating restaurant. The murmurs had been there even before that, through his stress with school and every other tiny daily prick that builds to create a huge sore. He had been holding it together so well all day, and finally something gave. So if anyone in that restaurant saw a spoilt child screaming because he couldn't have another toy, I hope they can understand where the avalanche came from. The toy was the final snowflake that caused the slide.


  1. Thank you for this well told, empathetic account of a situation so easily misunderstood. Even by the key players :-) BTW love your handle.

  2. Hopefully the staring people noticed that you were doing your best to remedy the situation and not ruin everyone's dinner. When I see things like this happen I often want to ask the struggling parent if she needs help, but I don't because I'm afraid it will embarrass her further. What would be your reaction to this? Would it just be terribly creepy to have a total stranger offer assistance?

    1. I hope they did too. In one way I didn't care, but in another way I was so conscious. I don't think it would be creepy to have a stranger offer help but I don't think my son would react very well, because he's not good with strangers at the best of times. But some very low key help would probably be welcome - like if someone offered to carry my bag but were quiet and didn't make a fuss about it, and most of all didn't try to talk to him!